UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Leave the Car Running
Today would be the last day. Joe Get-It agreed to the price for the ´86
Crown Victoria, counted out 550 dollars cash in his hand, handed it to
the oil-stained mechanic. Janey just stood there, smoking, biting her
nails. She wasn’t sure. Even the mechanic selling it didn’t look positive.
Joe was certain. He always was.
Joe opened the door for Janey, walked round to the drivers side.
The mechanic was still standing there, still holding the cash in his
hand, still with that dubious expression on his face, watching.
- Driver’s door don’t open from outside.
Janey leaned over, opened up for Joe, still had her legs on the
pavement, still smoking. Joe started the car up and Janey took one
last drag, tossed it off. As she dragged the door closed, she and the
mechanic locked eyes for a bit. He felt like pulling her out of the car,
though he couldn’t say why. The door shut with a clunk.
Inside Janey inspected the purchase. She couldn’t place the smell. The
floor was littered with trash, coat hangers, plastic baggies, blank labels,
empty bottles, while Joe messed with the tape deck.
- Tape decks broke.
The mechanic was still standing there, his voice muffled through the
door. Janey tried to roll down the window, got it down about an inch.
- Windows are jammed up, bad rust.
Janey stared at the mechanic accusingly, asked him what did work.
He said she ran fine, a little rough in the cold. Leave it running he said.
Janey kept staring at him.
Joe liked the interior. He’d had an accident as a kid so he couldn’t
smell or taste, so he didn’t notice the smell. He revved the engine and
it made him smile. Joe flipped a switch and the radio came on full blast.
- Radio works.
Janey was still staring at the mechanic who was passed unsure. Now
he was nervous, his hands lain gently on the hood. He didn’t know why.
- Just leave it running.
Janey thought fuck it and looked away. Joe Get-It put it in gear and
pealed out of the lot and onto the road.
JaneyJaney counted her cigarettes, half a pack of Newports in her pocket, three
packs of Pall Malls and a sleeve of rolling papers in her bag, leaned back
and looked out the windshield as the grey blue and iron green of the
turnpike enveloped them. She'd done her best, got out of high school, did
some night-school for nursing till her mom got sick. Waitressing at the
Colonette for the breakfast shift four mornings a week for dollar tips on
four dollar tabs. Helping Jooch out behind the counter on race days. For
five years. She lit another cigarette with the burning end of the last one,
watched as the road took them from the city into the vast industrial
wasteland. She smoked and thought of a new life with Joe in Atlantic
City, reached over and lay a finger on the dent above his nose. She was
tired of swimming. She'd let the current take her out to sea.
Joe Get-ItJoe thought about the sound of the engine, how it idled perfectly. He
thought about dealing cards in a collar and tie down in Balley’s Casino.
Drinks for free and him in charge, Janey happy and dressed in silk. He
thought about his dad and the nights down at the Chatterbox watching
the card games or the pool, fetching drinks or food or the papers. He
remembered his father telling him that cards was a clean game, pool
was for thugs, though he played both. And it was true, the pool
sometimes went bad, like the night his dad had to encourage a mark
to pay what was owed with the heavy end of the cue, hit the man a
glancing blow off the crown of the head that cracked Joe right on the
bridge of his nose, turned it to powder and knocked him from his stool.
It took two of little Joe's senses but didn’t wipe the smile off his eight
year old face. That had been an accident and Joe knew it. But there’d
be none of that in Balley’s. Joe felt Janey's hand on his face, drew it to
his mouth and kissed it. They headed south and it was getting cold.
Outside the car’s grimy windows, the refineries gave way to marshlands,
the marshes became sand dunes and snow began to fall. Janey
chainsmoked and used the hours to think, count her cigarettes, clean
the car after a fashion, and drop some new bit of trash out the inch-
gap the window allowed every couple of miles, the wind howling round
the car as they sped toward the sea. Joe found a statewide station
playing the oldies and he drove with happy concentration, singing
along to the doo-wop, getting the words consistently wrong. Janey
listened and slept.
As darkness fell the gas gauge read empty. Joe found a highwayside
gas-station and pulled in, filled the tank to the brim. As he walked
in to pay, he looked back into the car, saw Janey sleeping peacefully.
Inside Joe chose some chips, two bottles of coke, and a pack of
condoms and put them on the counter, waited to pay. For the moment
the station was deserted, Jane asleep in the car, no attendant in sight.
Joe took it as a sign and indecision was not one of his faults. He
crossed quickly behind the counter, hit sale on the register, and with
speed but without hurry, took the bills neatly from their rows, rolled
them into a wad, counting as he went. 89 dollars. He put the cash
in his jacket. As an afterthought he took a roll of quarters. For the
Janey woke from a dream in the car, stretched her legs, arched her back,
combed her hair in the rearview and lit another cigarette. Through the
snow-obscured window she watched Joe getting snacks and soda,
watched Joe rifle the register, watch the attendant appear, and watched
Joe strike him like a viper.
As Joe turned to leave, the attendant--16 at most, thin and tired--appeared
from the back room, rubbing his eyes, a look of realization dawning at the
speed of light on his face. Joe reacted without a second thought, smashed
the boy a right hook to the temple with his fist still loaded with the roll of
quarters, felt a wet crunch under his hand. The boy dropped to the floor,
eyes wide open. Joe stopped and looked at what he had done. Took the
condoms, the chips, the soda and left. Joe crossed the parking lot in
the driving snow. Janey stared at him.He paused at the door and Janey
made no move. Joe smiled sheepishly at Janey as though he'd just had a
minor accident. She, very slowly, leaned over and opened the door. Joe
lay the chips and soda on the seat between them and got in. Joe started
the car and Janey said nothing.
Joe Get-It and Janey drove on for another hour till the weather got too
bad to see. Joe pulled the car off the road into a clearing overlooking
the ocean and fell asleep almost immediately. Janey stayed awake and
smoked, watching the moon appear and disappear again between the
storm clouds, watched the snow land on the ocean and dissolve,
watched as the snow built up over the fender and windshield, watched
as it blocked off the window and the one inch gap it allowed, watched
the snow seal them in pure white. Today would be the last day and she
would settle for this near heaven. She smelled the exhaust begin to
seep through the vents. Joe stirred and raised his hand to kill the
engine and Janey stopped his hand with hers and snuggled against
him as though cold.
--Joe, just leave it running.
Padraig Mara was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey. He now lives
and writes in Reykjavík, Iceland.
© 2007 Underground Voices